Friday, December 30, 2011

Going for 15-1?

(Photo by Evan Siegle, Green Bay Press-Gazette)

What great fun it was to watch the Packers and Bears play on Christmas night.  We had my brother and family (visiting from Wisconsin) over to watch the game, along with good friend Myles and family.  Son Ben was home from school for a couple of weeks, and daughter Sarah was at the game, along with her Panther fan Andrew, who is such a big football fan in general that he decided to become a Packer shareholder.  From the very first drive, mostly in the no-huddle offense, with the screen pass being the key play in the drive, it became clear that the Packers had figured out a way to adapt to their makeshift offensive line, resulting from a series of injuries.

If there is one stat that stands out for me in the Packers-Bears game last week, it is this.  In the official NFL Gamebook of the game last week, the name of Julius Peppers appears exactly once.  In the list of starting defensive players.  He had no tackles, no assists, no sacks, no nothing.  Aaron Rodgers was never sacked, and in general was hit only when he ended up running with the ball, which happened a couple of times on busted plays, and a couple of other times on scrambles.  On defense, it was another story.  The Packers again gave up over 400 yards, including 199 rushing yards, mostly to a running back nobody ever heard of before.  The Packers got no sacks on defense.  More than any other single factor, the continued absence of Ryan Pickett contributed to the defensive problems.  I am anxiously awaiting his return.  The Packers simply cannot continue to play defense like this in the playoffs, if they expect to win some games.

It will be interesting to see what approach Mike McCarthy takes in this week's Lions game.  As a season ticket holder, I hate exhibition games, and I hate being required to pay full price for them.  I have fulminated in the past over the business of teams with playoff seeding locked up "tanking" their Week 17 game, making no real effort to win, and in the process knocking some other team out of the playoffs.  Just last year, I gave high praise to Lovie Smith and the Bears for giving it their all in Week 17, playing as if their game against the Packers mattered (which it did, in playoff life-or-death fashion, to the Packers and Giants).  This week's game against the Lions does matter, for playoff seeding purposes, to the Lions and Falcons.  And it matters for Packer team record purposes.  The 2011 Packer team is the only Packer team to win 14 games in a single regular season.  Obviously, no Packer team has ever won 15 in a regular season.  There is another team record at stake: the Lions have not beaten the Packers in Wisconsin since 1991, coincidentally just before Favre and then Rodgers arrived on the scene.

Now obviously, if the Packers get out to a comfortable lead, McCarthy will start taking starters out of the game.  And I fully assume that he will pull the trigger earlier than he might in any other week.  But I hope and expect that the Packers will go out and try to win the game, and go into the playoffs on a high note.

The Press-Gazette notes that it was 50 years ago this weekend that Green Bay first become Titletown, USA.  On December 31, 1961, the Packers hosted the NFL Championship Game and destroyed the Giants, 37-0.  I could not readily put my hands on it to scan it for this blog post, but somewhere around the house is the New York Post sports page from the day after the game.  It was given to us by Judy's old boss (a Giants fan) in the mid-1980's, meaning we have had it about as long as he did before giving it to us.  I am pretty sure that Vince Lombardi would have gone out and tried to win the game this week.  So should Mike McCarthy.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Next Goal: Home Field Advantage

It just figures that, as soon as I jump on the "undefeated Packers" bandwagon, they go out and lay an egg on the field.  All season long, I have been saying that I figured that the Packers would lose a game somewhere along the way.  Then, last week, I finally said that I thought the Packers would win their final 3 games to end the regular season undefeated.  You could say that I jinxed the team, but I think the odds just finally caught up with them.  (That, and the fact that the Packers were out-played on both sides of the ball, and out-coached as well.)

All year long, we have seen Aaron Rodgers carry the Packers on his back.  Receivers would drop balls, the defense would give up too many points, the running game would struggle, but the MVP-caliber play by Aaron Rodgers would bail out the team.  And in some games, we have seen the defense give up enough points to put the win in jeopardy, but then they would come up with the big turnover or stop to save the game.  The week 1 win against the Saints is a perfect example of both of these phenomena in action.  Rodgers was unstoppable in the passing game, and the defense came up with the big stop from the 1 yard line with no time left on the clock.

The question always was: what happens in a game that is close where the defense doesn't come up with the turnovers?  Or what happens in a game that is close where Aaron Rodgers doesn't have a sensational game?  Well, now we know, since the Chiefs game involved: (1) no turnovers generated by the Packers' defense; (2) a very sub-par performance by Aaron Rodgers, who completed less than 50% of his passes; (3) lots of drops by the receivers; and (4) a rushing game that was productive, but not given enough chances to move the ball.  The result was a loss to the Chiefs, by the score of 19-14.

I have been out of town since the game, and have not had the chance to go through the painful exercise of watching the game again.  This may well be one of those games I never get around to watching again.  We watched the Chiefs game in a Packers bar in Las Vegas.  Let's just say that this place was no Kettle of Fish.  The Kettle of Fish is a great Packers bar in Manhattan, where we watched the Monday Night Packers-Broncos game during the 2007 season. Everything was great about that bar, and we would return any time we are in New York during football season.  Whereas this bar in Las Vegas was full of smoke (hey, it's Las Vegas), not particularly friendly, and someplace we would avoid if in Las Vegas again during the season.

I am finishing this blog post after the Saturday (Christmas Eve) day games.  The 49ers beat the Seahawks, and as a result, the Packers still need one more Packer win or a 49er loss in order to clinch home field advantage in the NFC playoffs.  So Sunday night's game matters to the Packers, in every possible way.  The Packers ought to go out and win this game and get HFA out of the way, without leaving anything to be decided in the final game.  The Bears will be without starting quarterback Jay Cutler and starting running back Matt Forte.  The Bears have decided that Caleb Hanie is not the answer, and so they will start Josh McCown at quarterback against the Packers.  The Packers have plenty of injury problems of their own, and will be playing without Greg Jennings, Bryan Bulaga, Chad Clifton and Ryan Pickett.  The Bears usually play very well against the Packers, but the psychology of this game is all in the Packers' favor.  The Packers have HFA to play for, they ought to be mad as hell and a little embarrassed about last week's game, and should want to get that taste out of their mouths.  The Bears, while still alive for the playoffs, have lost four games in a row, and it would take a minor miracle for them to end up with a wild card spot.  That is a recipe for a Packers victory, and I suspect they will beat the Bears easily.

Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah to all.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Raiders Blown Out by the Packers

(Photo by Corey Wilson, Green Bay Press-Gazette)

During the first few offensive plays for the Raiders, I wondered if we Packer fans would be in for "another one of those days."  The Packers gave up a couple of passes for first downs, and it looked like the Raiders would just march down the field.  But just like that, Clay Matthews got after Carson Palmer, causing Palmer to hurry his throw, which resulted in an interception by D.J. Smith.  After a Raiders penalty on the Packers' first snap (the first of many Raiders penalties to follow), Ryan Grant broke off a 47 yard touchdown run, and after that, the only question was how bad it was going to get for the Raiders.

At some point during a commercial in the middle of the second quarter, Judy (my wife) said, "what is the score now, 31-0?"  And indeed it was.  The Packers eventually gave up some points, and the final score was Packers 46, Raiders 16.  It is a bit of a cliche to say that the game was not as close as the score, but it really wasn't.  The Raiders, their fans, and the local media here in the Oakland area are well aware that the Raiders were blown out for the second week in a row.  The online version of the game story in the Oakland Tribune has a different headline, but my local print paper's article on the game is titled: "Another 34-0 Deficit, Another Debacle."

The Packers' defense looked much more like its normal 2011 self this week, meaning they give up way too many yards, they don't get enough sacks, but they really do "bend" mostly without "breaking," and they continue to be among the best ball-hawking defenses in the league.  (Against the Raiders, they intercepted Palmer four times, and recovered a fumble.)  Truth be told, the Raiders dropped a lot of catchable balls in the game, and the Raiders committed lots of penalties, and both factors made things easier on the Packers' defense, but still, the point is that the defense looked like the kind of defense the Packers can continue to win with.

Against the Raiders, it was the offense that had an off day, if you can consider it an off day when you score 39 points on offense, and give your backup quarterback lots of playing time in the third and fourth quarters.  There were balls that should have been caught, balls that were just a little off target, and one ball that was wrestled away from our sometimes unstoppable tight end, Jermichael Finley, for an interception.  However, in the absence of James Starks, Ryan Grant looked like the Ryan Grant of a couple of years ago, breathing some new life into the running game just when it is needed, as the weather gets cold.

Rodgers, in the course of having his "off" day, managed to tie the Packers' team record for TD passes in a season, at 39.  The record was held by Brett Favre, for 39 TD passes in 1996, which was of course the year that the Packers won Super Bowl XXXI.  The Packers also set the team record for points scored in a season, by reaching 466 points.  Rodgers and the Packers have three more games in the regular season to add to those record totals.

The injury to Greg Jennings is obviously a major concern.  I consider him to be one of the top 4 playmakers on the team, along with Rodgers, Matthews and Woodson.  As of this writing, it looks like he will miss the last 3 weeks of the regular season, but that he should be back in time for the playoffs.  Normally, one would expect a problem when a player of Jennings' caliber misses three games, but the 2011 Packers have what can only be described as an embarrassment of riches at WR, most prominently Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley, James Jones, Donald Driver, and Randall Cobb.  I think they will be just fine.

I heard an interesting fact on the local (San Francisco) CBS post-game show: the Raiders have not beaten the Packers since Ronald Reagan was in office.  That would have been September 13, 1987, when the Raiders came to Lambeau Field and beat the Packers, 20-0.  That was so long ago that I have no recollection of the game, but the starting quarterback for the Packers was Randy Wright, and this was during the period that Randy Wright and his successor, Don Majkowski, were sharing the starting quarterback duties.  (Special Randy Wright memories: the gnarly older woman with the gravelly, smoker's voice who sat behind us in our old seats at Lambeau Field, and/or her partner, could be counted on at least once each game to yell out the following lines: "Randy Wrong, Randy Wrong." . . . "Come ON, youse guys, DO something!" . . . "Yah, I seen him piss away the Rose Bowl.")

Dredging up these Randy Wright memories brings to mind another thought.  While the Wright / Majkowski sharing of the starting quarterback job was a weird experiment, it is probably closer to the typical team's quarterback situation than what the Packers have had over the last 20 years.  Most teams struggle to find the right long-term quarterback, and may go through a couple of starting quarterbacks a year for a number of years before settling on their guy.  Think of the Chicago Bears, for instance.  But since the third week of the 1992 season, the Packers have had exactly two starting quarterbacks (not counting the concussion-induced start by Matt Flynn last year), both of whom are probably headed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  The only other back-to-back quarterback combination I can think of that is even comparable is Joe Montana - Steve Young in San Francisco.   We are lucky enough to be living through another golden age of Packers football, and we should, from time to time, take a moment to reflect on that.

And, of course, we are also living through what might end up being the most magical single season for a team in history.  Earlier in the season, I always thought that the Packers would lose a game here or there, and they still might, given the fact that the defense is not playing at the same level as it did last year.  But there are only three games left in the regular season.  The 5-8 Kansas City Chiefs, who fired their head coach this week, don't seem like they will be the ones to knock off the Packers.  The 7-6 Bears, probably without Jay Cutler and possibly without Matt Forte?  It could happen, as they do usually play the Packers very well, but I doubt it.  The self-destructing 8-5 Lions, playing in the cold?  Very little chance.  We will talk about the playoffs later, but at this point, having gotten by the Lions, Giants and Raiders, I think the Packers will end up 16-0.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

NFC North Champion Packers!

(Photo Courtesy of Packers.com)

In the course of one day, the Packers: (1) won their 18th straight game, a streak that began with their win against the Giants last year; (2) successfully completed the third quarter of the regular season without a loss; (3) achieved a 12-0 record for the first time in team history; (4) clinched a playoff spot when they beat the Giants on the last play of the game; (5) executed a classic one-minute drill to lead to the final play victory; and (6) clinched the NFC North Title later Sunday evening when the Lions lost.  Not bad for a day's work.  As for goals for next week, the Green Bay Press-Gazette Facebook page, NFL Historian Jon Zimmer reports that a win next week will match the best start ever by a defending Super Bowl Champion (matching the 1998 Denver Broncos).

Still . . . it is impossible to ignore the problems on the Green Bay defensive side.  From total points given up (35) to total yards allowed (447) to gain per rush (5.0) to gain per pass (8.5), this was not an elite defensive performance against the Giants.  And the Giants, while talented, are not really an elite team, having been crushed by the Saints on Monday Night Football six days before the Packers played them.  The Packers started the game with starters Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk inactive, and ended the game with Charles Woodson out with a concussion.  But the Packers and their fans have come to expect that the "next man up" will get the job done.  Looks like Woodson will be back this week, Hawk may be back, but Bishop probably will not be ready this week.

And now another wildly inconsistent team, the Oakland Raiders, comes to town on Sunday.  It was only four years ago that I reminisced about some of the great moments in Packers-Raiders history, from Super Bowl II, to the first Lambeau Leap, to the Irvin Favre game.  So rather than repeat that history now, just go take a look at the 2007 article.

The Raiders, at 7-5, are tied for first place in the AFC West, but as of now would lose the tie-breaker to the Broncos, and would finish out of the playoffs.  They have beaten some good teams, but have also lost, in embarrassing fashion, to the Chiefs and to the Dolphins in the last six weeks.  Suffice it to say, a team with a positive record, at 7-5, but with a negative points differential (giving up more points than it scores), is unlikely to be able to keep up with the 2011 Green Bay Packers.  I expect a fairly easy win (but bear in mind, I expected the same last week, too).

*  *  *  *

Meanwhile, the Packers' latest sale of stock is underway, as I mentioned last week.  Sure, being an "owner" of the Green Bay Packers is not, in any meaningful way, an investment.  But the fact that we, the fans, actually own our team is, and always has been, one of the greatest things about the Green Bay Packers.  Apparently I am not the only one who feels that way, from comments sent in by shareholders to ESPN's NFC North reporter, Kevin Seifert.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Packers' Streak Still Alive

(Photo by Andrew Weber, US Presswire)

Many people, including me, thought that the Thanksgiving Day game at Detroit was one of those games that the Packers could end up losing.  Even though the Lions had lost a few of these holiday games in a row, traditionally they played well on Thanksgiving; they beat the Packers at Detroit last year; and until a few weeks ago, it looked like both teams might go into this game undefeated.  I was particularly concerned about the Lions' fierce pass rush, led by the Lions' defensive star Ndamukong Suh.

The game started slowly, and at halftime the score was only 7-0 Packers.  Certainly, it was anybody's game at that point.  Not only were the Packers not running away with the game, you could make a case that they were lucky to be ahead.  The Lions had twice as much time of possession in the first half, twice as many total yards, almost twice as many passing yards.  A Stafford interception by Clay Matthews led to the only Packer points of the half, but other than that short scoring drive, the Lions' defense was doing an excellent job of slowing down the Packers.

How fitting it was, then, that the turning point in the Thanksgiving Day game against the Lions turned out to be a penalty by Suh.  I just have not been watching much of the Lions so far this year.  So I knew that Suh had been getting a reputation for dirty play, and I knew that the Bears in particular had complained about it a lot, but I didn't have a personal opinion about it.  In fact, I saw a story on ESPN about Suh and Jahvid Best buying new equipment for a high school team that had all its football equipment stolen, and I thought, "maybe he is not such a bad guy," and maybe it was just the Bears whining.

But then I saw the play where he pushed Evan Dietrich-Smith's head into the ground several times and then stomped on his arm, resulting in Suh's ejection from the game.  That was bad enough, but to hear his post-game explanation, that he had lost his balance and put his foot down to regain his balance just served to enrage me.  Boomer Esiason, Shannon Sharpe, and Bill Cowher all just hammered him during the halftime show of the second game, and has so have all the commentators since.  And well they should.  It would be one thing if, as Charles Woodson did after throwing a punch earlier in the year, Suh just said that he had lost his cool, that he doesn't want to be that kind of player, and tried to move on.  But to stand up there, in pure denial mode, and say he was trying to regain his balance?  It is just ridiculous.  A former college teammate of Suh's even called him delusional.  While the Lions had stopped the Packers on the play in question, so that they would have kicked a field goal to make it 10-0, the penalty and ejection of Suh led directly to the Packers scoring a touchdown instead, to take a 14-0 lead, and to go on to win the game 27-15.

Since I first put down these thoughts in a draft post almost a week ago, Suh has apologized to just about everybody but Evan Dietrich-Smith, but thanks to his post-game comments, everybody saw right through his belated apology.  The Commissioner imposed a two-game suspension, Suh appealed, and his appeal was rejected almost immediately.

So, after a mini-bye week when the players got a few days off to relax and heal, the Packers move on to play the Giants this week in New Jersey.  While the Packers, at 11-0, have won 17 in a row dating back to last year, the Giants have lost 3 in a row, and find themselves in second place in their division, and, as of now, would finish out of the playoffs if the season ended today.  Plus, we all recall, the Packers took the Giants apart last year, beating them 45-17 in week 16 last year.  So between the desperation factor and the revenge factor, could the Giants be the ones to end the Packers' win streak?  Maybe, but I doubt it.

Last year, as I noted at the time, the Giants went into that week 16 game with almost as much at stake as the Packers, who never would have even made the playoffs if they lost to the Giants in week 16, or to the Bears in week 17.  Plus, the Giants had just suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Eagles, much as they suffered a big loss to the Saints this past Monday night.  Last year, they collapsed in the face of the Eagles' 4th quarter rally, capped by the DeSean Jackson punt return touchdown in the last minute that, with the benefit of hindsight, made it possible for the Packers to make the playoffs.  This year, they were just beaten, from start to finish, by the Saints, who led 21-3 at halftime and never looked back.

I just don't think the Giants are playing well enough now to beat the Packers.  Not only have they lost 3 in a row, but they have been outscored by their opponents this year.  Going into a game against the Packers, having given up more points than you are scoring all year, is not a situation calculated to lead to a good result. I think the Packers will keep their streak alive for at least another week.

Packers Stock Sale Next Week!


Just in time for Christmas and Hanukah, the Packers are offering another stock sale, starting next Tuesday.  When the Packers last did this (in 1997), my wife, my kids and I all bought stock, and have never regretted showing our support for the Packers this way.  It is not, in any normal sense, an investment.  Proceeds will be used to fund additional Lambeau Field expansion, including the new end zone seats which will be built.  A summary of some of the information available about the stock sale is available here.  Full disclosure information will be available later.

Anyway, thanks to Packer blogger Jersey Al and to my friend Peter Chen for reminding me of the stock sale. Go out and become an NFL owner!

Monday, November 21, 2011

10-0, But Far From Perfect

(Image by Duff Damos)

Well, it appears that the Packers have not quite gotten past their problems on defense yet.  Not only did they give up 455 yards of total offense to the Buccaneers, but they let Josh Freeman throw for over 300 yards and 2 touchdowns, they let LeGarrette Blount run for almost 6 yards per carry, and they made Kellen Winslow look the tight end we thought Jermichael Finley would be this year.  On offense, Aaron Rodgers again had a passer rating over 110, but the offense seemed slightly out of kilter, with more missed passes than we are used to seeing this year, and the special teams had wacky plays from Tim Masthay's punt with two fumbles on the same play, to the Packers almost giving the ball back to Tampa Bay through sheer stupidity on the first of two Tampa onside kicks.

This last one is a particular pet peeve of mine.  If you are playing on special teams, you should know the rules relevant to special teams play.  The play by D.J. Smith on the first onside kick by Tampa Bay was both atrocious and utterly inexcusable. It was obvious that the ball was not going to travel 10 yards, and yet Smith went over the top of the kicker's body to touch the ball, which was then recovered by the Buccaneers.  In this case, Smith was bailed out by the fact that the kicker actually touched the ball first, for an illegal touching penalty, but that was just a lucky break.  His intent was to get to the ball first, despite the fact that it had not gone 10 yards.  This is the equivalent of a quarterback not knowing that you can't throw two forward passes on the same play, or a kickoff returner not knowing that a kickoff is a live ball (I'm talking about you, Barry Foster).  Yes, I suppose it is hard to make those decisions in a split second, but I still think it is evidence of either bad coaching, a player who has not learned the rules, or a player who didn't exactly blow the doors off of the Wunderlic test.

Oh, yes, and notwithstanding all that, the Packers beat the Buccaneers 35-26, going to 10-0, and extending their winning streak in games that count to 16.  Which is a textbook example of this team finding a way to win a game, even though they played sub-par football in all three phases of the game.  There is no question in my mind that the Packers, in most other years, would have found a way to lose this game, and so, as dissatisfied as fans may be with the Buccaneers game, we should at least be thankful that the Packers have turned it around to the point where they win most (or all) games that are close enough that they could easily lose them.

Everybody knows that the Lions and the Cowboys host a Thanksgiving Day game every Thanksgiving.  That has been true since 1967.  Only football fans of a certain age will recall that, from 1951-1963, the Packers played the Lions every Thanksgiving.  Vince Lombardi evidently hated playing every Thanksgiving Day, and he had the practice discontinued after 1963.  Probably the 1962 game had a lot to do with it.  The Packers came into the game undefeated at 10-0, and the Lions were 8-2 (this year they are 7-3).  The Lions won the game, 26-14, but the Packers did not lose another game, finished the regular season 13-1, and won the NFL Championship.

Speaking of the history of Thanksgiving games, they started in 1920, with 6 games being played that Thanksgiving.  Of the 12 teams playing that day, only one survives today, the Decatur Staleys (now the Chicago Bears).  The Packers played their first Thanksgiving game in 1923, beating the Hammond Pros by the score of 19-0.  Yes, the league was a very different place back then.  My favorite Thanksgiving game memory is from 1986, when Walter Stanley completed the Packers' comeback with a last minute punt return for a touchdown, allowing the Packers to beat the Lions, 44-40.  Somebody (I have forgotten who) put a crushing block on the last Lion with a chance to stop him on his way to the end zone.

This Lions game, to be perfectly honest, makes me nervous.  The Lions have a very good pass rush, a nearly unstoppable wide receiver (Calvin Johnson), and they traditionally play very well on Thanksgiving at home, even when the team is not very good.  So this is certainly one of the games where the Packers could lose.  And with the 49ers (9-1) nipping at the Packers' heels, every game counts a lot, when it comes to setting up home field advantage in the playoffs.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Buccaneers Up Next

When last I discussed the Packers, I was fretting about the struggling Packers' defense.  So, they go out and have their best defensive performance of the year, and beat the Vikings on Monday night by the score of 45-7.  Even in their other two blowout games against the Broncos (49-23) and the Rams (24-3), the Packers gave up ridiculous yardage totals (384 yards to the Broncos, and 424 yards to the Rams).  Sure, this game was against the (now 2-7) Vikings, but it was about time that the defense looked like last year's defense down the stretch.

Meanwhile, the offense continued to look unstoppable, and Rodgers has now beaten Favre's record of 25 straight home games with a touchdown pass, as Rodgers reached 26 games on Monday night.  And the team record winning streak in games that count now stands at 15 (2 games in the regular season last year, all 4 playoff games, and 9 games this year).

The defensive resurgence does not look like a fluke.  Woodson asked for the defense to apply more pressure this week, and to open up some opportunities for Matthews.  Wish granted.  Dom Capers called a much more aggressive defensive game plan, blitzing on almost 75% of the snaps, and it worked like a charm.  Clay Matthews had 2 sacks, and Desmond Bishop added a 3rd sack.  Charles Woodson was very close to 2 interceptions, one of which would certainly have been returned for a touchdown.  From start to finish, the defense controlled the game.

The Packers are now in the midst of a 10 day stretch within which they will play 3 games.  From a physical standpoint, you would think that this would be the toughest stretch of the season.  But they came out of the Vikings game healthy, and now they play the Buccaneers.  Aaron Rodgers has never beaten the Buccaneers, and of course in 2009 the Packers lost to the Buccaneers, who were winless going into the game.  At the beginning of the season, this looked like it would be a very tough game, because the Buccaneers played very well last year, and Josh Freeman was supposed to be the next big thing.  As it turns out, they go into this game with a record of 4-5, and with Josh Freeman having more interceptions than touchdowns.  My biggest concern about this game is that the Packers look past this game to the even-shorter week they have to prepare for the Lions.  I don't think that will happen, given that the Packers are still stinging from the 2009 loss to the Bucs.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Packers' "Struggling" Defense

(Green Bay Press-Gazette photo by Corey Wilson)

What is wrong with the Packers' defense?  While the Packers beat the Chargers on Sunday, 45-38, the fact that they gave up 38 points to the previously-struggling Chargers, and that they again needed a last-minute interception (by Charlie Peprah) to seal the win, is causing a lot of teeth-gnashing among Packer fans.

The two best quotes I have heard about the state of the Packers' defense come from Charles Woodson and from the Packergeeks blog.  Woodson, after the game, said, "We like to think that we have a lot of playmakers on our defense, especially in the back end.  We feel like if the ball is in the air, we'll come up with our fair share certainly. But how many times are you going to have two interceptions for a touchdown? … Yeah, today it played out big for us. But we have to be more sound as a defense throughout the whole game." And the Packergeeks, who provide high quality commentary on the state of the Packers, said, "If our defense didn’t cause turnovers, we would be absolutely awful."


As an aside, I laughed when I heard, in the days leading up to the game, that the Chargers were piping in crowd noise to their practices, anticipating a large volume of Packer fans at the game.  But sure enough, the Packer fan crowd noise was a big enough problem that the Chargers used a silent count on offense toward the end of the game.  Yes, there are Packer fans all over, and a side trip to San Diego during the month of November probably sounded good to a lot of Packer fans.


But getting back to the Packer defense, what is the problem?  There was some discussion this week about "communications problems" in the secondary.  But I think the root of the problem is the lack of pass rush of the front 3.  The Packers let Cullen Jenkins get away in free agency, signing with the 3-5 "dream team" Philadelphia Eagles.  The push by the defensive line has not been the same since he left.  Last year, the defensive line consistently got enough push against the offensive line to back them up.  Sometimes, the defensive linemen themselves would reach and sack the quarterback.  Other times, when a rusher came around the corner (most frequently Clay Matthews), the quarterback could not step up in the pocket, and was frequently sacked by the rusher from the edge.  Last year in the regular season, the Packers as a team had 47 sacks, with the starting defensive linemen having 14.5 sacks, and with Clay Matthews getting 13.5.

This year, without Cullen Jenkins, the defensive line is not getting the same push.  As a result, sacks by the defensive line have fallen off, and so have sacks by rushers coming from the edge.  When that rusher comes around the corner, most of the time the quarterback just steps up into the pocket, and Matthews, or Woodson, or whoever the rusher is goes sailing by behind him.  After half the regular season is over, the Packers as a team have only 19 sacks, the starting defensive linemen have 5 sacks, and Clay Matthews has 3 sacks.

This drop-off in productivity of the pass rush seems to have led Dom Capers to make some different choices in making the defensive calls.  He knows: (1) that the offense is going to score a lot of points; and (2) that the front 3 are not getting the job done like they did last year.  As a result, if he wants a pass rush, he has to add extra rushers, which in turn creates more chances of giving up big plays.  It is no coincidence that all three Packer interceptions of Rivers last week occurred on plays where the Packers rushed 5 or more players.  Charlie Peprah described the Packers as a pressure defense, and he is right.  The problem is, they can't seem to create that pressure this year without blitzing.  And one of these weeks, that is going to result in a long touchdown pass, instead of an interception, at precisely the wrong moment.

Monday night, the Vikings come to town for their re-match with the Packers.  What with Favre retired again, and with the Vikings at 2-6, the game may not have the same luster as it did last year.  But the Vikings almost always play well against the Packers, and Christian Ponder looks like he has some talent.  I think the Vikings may keep it close for awhile, but the Packers should pull away toward the end of the game.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Second Half of the Season Starts Now


(Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

"Christian Ponder has already had a better rookie season than I had."  Troy Aikman, after the first 20 minutes of the Packers' pre-bye game, with the score 14-7 Vikings.

The Packers set all kinds of individual, team and league records in the game, and overcame early deficits to beat the Vikings, 33-27, sending themselves into the bye week as the only undefeated team left in the league.  However, nagging issues continue to cause concern to the fans and, I would hope, to the players and the coaching staff.

First, a few of the records:
  • Mike McCarthy reached 25 road victories as a head coach faster (after 44 games) than any other Packer coach in history, other than Vince Lombardi (36 road games).
  • The Packers' 13 game winning streak in games that count is the best in Packers' history.
  • The Packers won their 700th game.  The Bears are the only other team with 700 or more wins.
  • Aaron Rodgers became the first quarterback in NFL history with a passer rating of 110 or higher in each of the first seven games of a season.
And now, the concerns.  It is tough to get too worked up about problems on a 7-0 team, but there are some. Not really on offense, and not to any significant extent on special teams.  On offense, the Packers continue to play lights-out football.  I don't think you can play any better than Aaron Rodgers is playing, the receivers are doing a good job this year of catching the ball, and the running game is much more productive than it was for most of last year.  The Packers ground out the last minutes of the Vikings game with a couple of rushing first downs, for heavens' sake.  That didn't happen for the Packers very much in recent years.  Despite some injuries on the offensive line, the line is providing pretty good protection for Rodgers.

On special teams, I no longer have to hold my breath every time there is a kicking play.  The kick coverage team has given up a couple of long returns, but they don't seem to me to have the raging inconsistency of the last couple of years.  Randall Cobb has run back one kick for a touchdown, and every time he touches the ball on a kicking play, he has the potential to do something big.  He may not be at the level of a Devin Hester or Desmond Howard, but he is a vast improvement over the returners we have had in recent years.

Which brings us to the defense.  The Packers are giving up too many points, way too many yards, and are allowing teams to stay close enough to make things scary at the end of games.  The game against Minnesota was a perfect example.  At times in the third quarter, I thought the Packers would end up winning the game by 20 or more points.  But instead of destroying the Vikings when they were down, the Packers let the Vikings creep back into the game.  Watch games of the Patriots from a few years ago, or even watch the Saints against the Colts in week 7, and you will see teams that have the killer instinct.  The Packers don't seem to have that going for them right now, and they didn't really have it last year, either, even though the defense seemed better last year.  Just take the playoff games.  Of the four games, only the Falcons game had a relaxing finish.  In the Eagles, Bears and Steelers' games, the opposition had a shot to win the game in the final minutes.

So what is the problem?  Is it the loss of Cullen Jenkins to the Eagles?  The loss of Nick Collins to injury?  Another year of wear and tear on Charles Woodson?  The defensive players are admiring their Super Bowl rings when they should be getting ready for the next week's game?  I think all of these things (except for the last one) contribute to the problem, but I suspect that the biggest problem is that the defense has just not gelled this year, what with the changes that have taken place.  A week off may have provided a little respite from the daily grind for the players, and given a little extra time for Dom Capers to work on some new wrinkles.  I do think more aggressiveness on defense, and a little less "bend but don't break" philosophy would pay dividends.  It is also worth noting that we had a bit of the same problem last year.  The Packers had 5 wins in the regular season last year by 18 points or more.  One of those games was in the first half of the season, and the other four were in the second half.  So maybe we will see the Packers' defense play better in the second half this year, too.

Since the bye week fell almost in the middle of the Packers' schedule, the second half of the season effectively starts on Sunday, at San Diego.  Living here in California, we considered driving down to San Diego for the game, but ultimately decided against it.  I have bad memories from the last Packer game I went to at San Diego (yes, that game), but scheduling had more to do with it than bad memories.  The Chargers are expecting the biggest crowd of the season on Sunday, and Scott Crevier, of the South End Zone web site, reported on his way to the game that there were lots of Packer fans in the Orange County airport, three days before the game.  So it seems safe to assume that the Packers will find San Diego almost to be a home away from home.

Eight of the last nine games of the season are against teams with winning records at this point (Minnesota is the sole exception).  So the last half of the season is not going to be easy, and I am pretty sure that the Packers will lose a game or two along the way.  I doubt that this week will be one of those losses.  The Chargers are just not playing up to my expectations of them.  Last Monday night, they lost a close game to the Chiefs in overtime, but they looked terrible in the process, and Philip Rivers, in particular, just looked out of sync.  They will have to play a much better game on Sunday if they expect to beat the rested Packers.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Ponder-ing the Vikings Game

(Green Bay Press-Gazette photo of Charles Woodson and Al Harris embracing after the game)

"Boring." That is the description that a family member, and the Packergeeks, both used to describe the Packers' 24-3 win over the Rams last week, bringing the Packers' record to 6-0, and leaving them as the last undefeated team in the league.  I didn't really agree with that, until I tried to watch the game again, and found myself day-dreaming about other things.  But hey, boring isn't a bad thing when your team is 6-0.

One of the more "interesting" plays in the game was turned in by Sam Shields.  He made a great play on the ball to intercept Sam Bradford's pass in the end zone.  But he ended up getting a concussion after running around in the end zone trying to decide whether to try to return the ball.  I have to say that was one stupid play on his part. Watching it on TV, it is always difficult to know what the player sees, or thinks he sees, from his angle. Here he makes a great play to intercept the ball in the end zone, but instead of either running the ball out, or kneeling to end the play, he ran all the way from one edge of the end zone toward the other, evidently trying to find a seam to run the ball out. Instead he was hammered on the play and did not return. That is one painful way to get a touchback.

The Packers continue to look pretty much unstoppable on offense, although I suppose it sounds strange to say that when the team did not score in the second half.  But when you are ahead 24-3 at halftime, and when the opponent does not score in the second half either, it might be a little obsessive to worry much about that.  On defense, the Packers continue to give up way too many yards, and have not seemed, all year, to be as dominant as they were at times last year.  But, for whatever reason, they seem to be able to make plays and stiffen in the red zone.  The challenge for the defense would be to learn to play that way on the rest of the field, so you don't have to come up with the big play in the red zone.

"We're 7 days from being 7-0, and that's our message."  When I first saw this quote from Mike McCarthy, I almost cringed.  Bulletin Board Material!  And I suppose it is bulletin board material.  But on second thought, this is just the new Mike McCarthy, the one we have seen since late last season.  The one who said "we are nobody's underdog" in connection with the game against the Patriots.  The one who had the team measured for Super Bowl rings the night before the Super Bowl.  The one who has an empty frame in the team meeting room, waiting for the portrait of the next Packer Super Bowl Champions.  He seems to have a strategy here, that expressing high expectations for the team, and challenging them to meet those expectations, serves as motivation.  Motivation is a funny thing, but this technique seems to be working.  You would think that at this level, players can motivate themselves, and that nobody needs emotional halftime speeches to get ready to play the second half.  You would think that a player like Aaron Rodgers doesn't need to use long-ago perceived slights as motivation to play better, but he does, and it also seems to be working.  As long as the Packers continue to win most (or all!) of the games against good teams, and avoid letdowns against the bad teams, they are going to continue to win a lot of games.

Since joining the NFL in 1921, the Packers have been 6-0 only 5 other times, and in all 5 of those seasons, they won the league’s championship:1929, ’30, ’31, ’62 and ’65.  And here is another obscure stat for you:  5 of the last 6 teams to start 6-0 have made it to the Super Bowl.

The Vikings have announced that they are benching Donovan McNabb, and that Christian Ponder will be the starting QB for the rest of the year.  It will be interesting to see how he plays.  It is a daunting task to make your first start against the undefeated defending World Champions.  On the other hand, you' have nothing to lose in that circumstance.  You are expected to lose the game, and everyone will understand if you do.  It is all upside, just like when Cam Newton lost to the Packers and all anyone could talk about was how good he looked.  I expect the Packers to be 7-0 going into the bye week, so the stats junkies should get ready to pour through the record books looking for 7-0 teams and how they do.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Packers 5-0 on the Way to 7-0?


(Photo from the Green Bay Press-Gazette.)
Since I am late in writing about last week's Packers-Falcons game, which the Packers won 25-14, I will offer a few comments about the game before turning my attention to the next couple of games.

When the Falcons got the opening kickoff, and started at the 20, one thing I did not expect to happen was for them to go on an 80 yard, 13 play drive to score a touchdown, then recover a Ryan Grant fumble to end a promising drive, then go on another long drive to go up 14-0.

On the one hand, I did believe, going into the game, that the Packers exposed the weakness of the Falcons' defense in the playoff game last year.  And when the Falcons lost 30-12 to the Bears in week 1 of this year, my view of the Falcons' weaknesses were reinforced.  But on the other hand, they were the no. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs last year, they still have Michael Turner, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Matt Ryan on offense, and now they have added Julio Jones.  So starting with a 14 point lead, they were going to be tough to beat, especially since the Packers were never behind any team all of last year by more than 7 points.

But then just like that, the game changed.  We maybe did not realize it at first, because the Packers' first three scoring drives resulted in field goals, not touchdowns.  But the bottom line is that the Packers shut out the Falcons during the last 43 minutes of the game, while going on 6 scoring drives of their own, putting up 25 unanswered points.  There were big passing touchdowns to Jones and Jennings, and there were a total of 4 field goals.  The Falcons could not stop the Packers, all they could do is just contain the damage.

How did the Packers change things around so thoroughly?  To counteract the loss of OT Chad Clifton early in the game, the Packers started rolling Rodgers out more, and keeping an extra blocker in the backfield on many occasion, just to make sure he did not get killed back there.  Rodgers spread out the ball to 12 different receivers during the game, keeping the Falcons off balance.  And most importantly, after the Grant fumble on the first drive, the Packers never gave the ball away again.

On the defensive side, the Packers seemed to keep the Falcons guessing at all times.  Sometimes they would rush only 3 or 4, dropping everybody else in coverage, and at other times (increasingly as the game went on), they would bring extra pressure on Ryan.  He was very active in changing plays at the line of scrimmage, but he could not out-think Dom Capers, and was picked off twice, and pressured into bad throws many times.

All in all, it was a great example of the Packers' coaching staff adjusting their game plans on the fly, adapting to the changing circumstances on the field.  It was, in some ways, the Packers' best game of the year.  My biggest concern at this point is that everybody is getting a little too confident about the Packers.  My buddy Dick Karth said that this was one of the most impressive games he has seen.  Noted Packer blogger Jersey Al, on the Cheesehead Radio broadcast this week, said he is as "giddy as a schoolgirl" about the Packers.  That is fine, I feel pretty good about the Packers myself.  I just hope that the players are not reading all of their own press clippings, especially going into potential "trap games" like they have both this week against the 0-4 Rams, and next week against the 1-4 Vikings.

As one would expect, the danger is not lost on the coaching staff, which has gone out of its way to remind the Packers of their loss to the 0-7 Buccaneers two years ago.  I don't expect the players or the coaches to let that happen again.  The Packers are too good to lose to the Rams at home, and I would be nothing short of shocked if they do.  The Vikings game next week is a little different, because it is a rivalry game, and it is on the road.  Still, I really expect the Packers to be 7-0 next Sunday night, heading into a well-deserved bye week.

Some interesting notes on the Rams game: Rams Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo was the Defensive Coordinator for the Giants at the time of that painful NFC Championship game after the 2007 season (also known as Favre's last game for the Packers).  So he is a pretty good coach, but I don't think that he has the horses at the moment.  Former Packers Al Harris, Brady Poppinga, and Josh Gordy all play for the Rams.  It appears Al Harris may start against the Packers, and I would expect a very warm welcome from the crowd.  He was a great player for the Packers during his prime, and he left only because of a combination of injury and advancing age.  I don't think I will ever forget his "Thank You Note" to the fans when he was released.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Packers and Lions Both Still Undefeated

(Photo from the Green Bay Press-Gazette)

The Packers finished the first quarter of their season on Sunday, by beating the Denver Broncos by the score of 49-23.  Based on the way the Lions and Packers finished last year, I am not surprised that they are both doing well so far this year.  But I am stunned that there are only two 4-0 teams left in the NFL, and they are both in the NFC North!  Unless one of these teams goes on a losing streak, every game the Packers and Lions play becomes important.  Neither team wants to fall behind the other with both looking so good.

It would be tough to overstate how great Aaron Rodgers looked in this game.  He became the only quarterback in history to throw for more than 400 yards, and throw four touchdown passes, and rush for two touchdowns in a single game.  James Starks did a credible job rushing with Ryan Grant sitting out this game, and the wide receivers stepped up when the Broncos decided to make sure that Jermichael Finley did not have a repeat of his 3 touchdown performance against the Bears.  I have to admit that when Donald Driver was taken off on a cart in the second quarter, I thought he would be out for some time and, given his age, it certainly seemed possible that we had just witnessed the end of his career.  When he came back into the huddle at the beginning of the second half, and ultimately scored a touchdown, the sense of relief, admiration and inspiration in the stadium was palpable, even just watching it on TV.  He is one of the good guys, and will always be remembered as such.

Meanwhile, problems continue on the defensive side of the team.  The problems are most glaring when long passes are completed against the Packers, and so the obvious solution is better secondary play.  Even Dom Capers seems to attribute the problems to changes in the secondary, with Morgan Burnett stepping in to replace Nick Collins.  While this undoubtedly is part of the problem, I don't think that the defensive backs are the only problem.  From my viewing of the game, I come down on the side of those who say that the problem starts with the lack of pressure on the quarterback (for example, take at the game summary by the Packergeeks).  Unlike during the run to and through the playoffs last year, the Packers' defensive line is just not getting enough pressure on the quarterback - or at a minimum, they did not get enough pressure on Sunday.  Was it the failure to sign free agent Cullen Jenkins during the off-season, who signed instead with the team formerly known as the Dream Team?  Was it the injury to Mike Neal?  Obviously, both of these contributed to the problem, but so far, Dom Capers has not found the solution.  When three or four rush the quarterback, the quarterback usually has plenty of time to sit back and wait for something to develop.  Only when Capers sends additional rushers does the quarterback have to rush his passes, and then of course there are fewer guys left in coverage, so it is easier to complete the passes.  If you saw the Jets-Ravens game on Sunday night, you saw an example of pass rush by the Ravens that was so overpowering there was not much Mark Sanchez could do.  When they blitzed, they got there so fast Sanchez had little chance to unload the ball, and even when they didn't blitz, they still got enough pressure on him to disrupt things.  I have not seen enough of that from the Packers this year.

What a pair of prime time games we have coming up this week.  Sunday night, it is the Packers returning to the home of last year's no. 1 seed Atlanta Falcons, hoping to repeat their performance from last year in the playoffs.  On Monday night, the undefeated Lions host the NFC North Champion Bears.  Lots of potential playoff implications in these two games.  For the Falcons and the Bears, it is a chance to start to recover from their disappointing 2-2 starts, and get back over .500 for the year.  For the Packers and the Lions, it is a chance to go to 5-0 and state a solid case for being elite teams in 2011.  For both teams, it will be another significant test, after starting out with the same record against similar teams.

The Packers have beaten two good teams (Saints and Bears), and two mediocre teams (Panthers and Broncos).  The Lions have beaten two pretty good teams (Buccaneers and Cowboys), and two mediocre teams (Chiefs and Vikings).  The major difference is that the Lions have had to stage startling comebacks in two of their games (Vikings and Cowboys).  This shows that the Lions have learned how to win, and that they never give up.  But it also shows a weakness, in falling so far behind to one bad team (Vikings) and to one pretty good but nicked up team (Cowboys).  They can't keep that up forever.  Either they get better in the early stages of games, or they start falling short in their furious comebacks.  The Lions are better than the Bears, and they are playing at home.  I think they will be 5-0.  In the case of the Packers, I acknowledge the power of the "revenge" factor for the playoff game last year, but the Packers overcame the same factor against the Bears.  The Falcons offense just does not seem as strong as it was last year (they only scored 12 and 13 points in their two losses), while their defense seems just as vulnerable as the Packers showed it to be last year.  I think the Packers will also be 5-0.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Finley: Unstoppable!

(Photo from the Green Bay Press-Gazette)

Just as I thought, when the Packers meet the Bears with Jermichael Finley in uniform, and in the absence of a flurry of penalties, the Packers win the game, pretty convincingly.  Finley was just about unstoppable, scoring all three Packer touchdowns, apparently the first Packer tight end 3 TD game since Keith Jackson (Whoa Nellie!  I am referring to the player, not the announcer) scored three touchdowns in the season opener in 1996.  Sunday's game was not as close as the 27-17 final score would suggest.

The Packers' passing offense was aided significantly by a 92 yard rushing day for Ryan Grant.  After missing all three Bears games last year, I am sure it felt great for Grant to be such a contributor.  The defense managed to hold Matt Forte to 2 yards rushing, and while Cutler got a lot of yards, the Packers sacked him 3 times and intercepted him twice.  Woodson played a lot at safety in this game, returning to his cornerback position when the Packers were in nickel pass coverage.  Neither Woodson nor Matthews had gaudy stats in this game, but both were steady contributors, and Matthews in particular was very disruptive, as the TV announcers mentioned.

Meanwhile, I cannot imagine the disappointment of the Bears' coaching staff and players over the result of their masterful trick punt return play.  With a minute left in the game, and trailing by 10 points, the Bears uncorked a beauty of a play.  The Packers had been punting away from Devin Hester all afternoon, and did so again, punting to the Packers' left sideline.  But Hester, on the Packers' right side, sprinted  further to the Packers' right side, acting as if he was waiting for the ball to come to him.  Every Packer player, except punter Tim Masthay, bit on the fake, assumed that Masthay had mistakenly punted to the Packers' right side, and they all swarmed to Hester's side.  Meanwhile, Johnny Knox fielded the ball on the Packers' left sideline, and headed up field, with one lead blocker taking out Masthay, the only guy who realized the ball was over on the left side.  It would have been a touchdown, but for an absolutely meaningless holding infraction by Corey Graham, blocking one of the gunners early on in the play.  He didn't need to hold anybody; whoever he held probably was 20 yards or more away from the play at the time.  Now even if the Bears got the touchdown, they would have had to recover an onside kick and score a field goal to tie up the game.  But it was a beautifully-designed play, one of the sweetest special-teams plays I have ever seen, and it was screwed up by a needless penalty.  Even Aaron Rodgers and Greg Jennings were raving about this play.

So the Packers are 3-0, which, as we were told, means that there is a 76% chance they will make the playoffs.  In the case of the 2011 Packers, I think the chances are a little higher than that.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Watching the 2010 Packers-Bears Week 3 Game

Just for the heck of it, I decided to re-watch the Week 3 game between the Packers and the Bears from last year.  I knew, without looking up the details, that the Packers would lose by 3 points, and that there were something like 18 penalties against the Packers in the game.  Painful as it was to watch, I think I gained some extra perspective by watching the game again.

The reason I chose to watch this Bears game is that it is the only one the Packers played against the Bears last year with Jermichael Finley.  Since the Bears play a lot of Tampa-2 defense, Jermichael Finley (or any top flight tight end) should be a large factor in the game, getting open over the middle.  And he was.  The Packers ended up losing the game anyway, but having another shot at the Bears with Jermichael Finley in the lineup makes me think good things should happen.

First Quarter.  The first quarter ended with the Packers leading 7-0.  The Bears had two possessions during this quarter, both of which were extended by penalties on the Packers.  Yet the Bears missed a field goal, and then Cutler was intercepted in the end zone.  Rodgers looked sharp, but there was no running game to speak of (remember, this was after Ryan Grant went out for the season, and before the Packers started using Starks).  The Packers got good pressure on Cutler, and sacked him once, as I recall.  So far, so good.

Second Quarter:  The Packers continued to outplay the Bears, getting a couple of sacks on defense, forcing a 3-and-out, and gave up a touchdown only after a Hester punt return set the Bears up in great position to score.  On offense, the Packers scored only a field goal, and started mis-firing more frequently than in the first quarter.  Rodgers was intercepted on the Hail Mary pass at the end of the half, which doesn't really count.  Most ominously, by my unofficial count the Packers only had 6 penalties in the first half.  Lots more to come.

Third Quarter: There were no scores in the quarter, but penalties started to have a real impact on the game. A Jermichael Finley TD was nullified by a holding penalty, and then Julius Peppers blocked the field goal try.  The Bears got down to the 1 yard line, but threw an incomplete pass on 4th down.  Six penalties in the quarter.  At the end of three quarters, Packers, 10-7.

Fourth Quarter:  And then came the decisive fourth quarter.  Hester returned a punt for a touchdown on the second play of the quarter, giving the Bears their first lead.  The Packers scored on a long touchdown drive.  A Finley TD was nullified by penalty (of course) but then Rodgers ran it in.  The Bears tied it up on a long drive, where a nullified interception and 30 yards of penalties contributed heavily to the drive.  Then, James Jones was stripped along the sidelines, and McCarthy wasted a precious timeout challenging the play, despite the fact (1) that it happened right in front of him; and (2) the fact that there was no chance it would be overturned.  This led to the go-ahead (and winning) field goal, after McCarthy decided to mount a heroic goal line stand instead of letting the Bears score, which would have given Rodgers a final chance.

So what does this tell us for this week's game?  It tells me that the Packers should win.  They had more yards than the Bears last year, more first downs, and more sacks.  It was only the penalties, poor special-teams play, and the poor decisions by McCarthy in the fourth quarter that let the Bears win the game.  Since then, the offensive line is much better (and so there should be fewer holding and offsides penalties), McCarthy's decision-making at the end of games is improved, and the special teams play is (at least a little) better.  Oh, and we have a better running game this time.  The loss of Nick Collins is a problem, and somewhere down the road they may lose a game because of it.  But I don't think it will be this week.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Déjà Vu

(Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Photo)

In the words of the immortal Yogi Berra (my favorite baseball player as a kid), "It's déjà vu all over again." Just like last year, the Packers are 2-0 after two weeks, leading into their week three matchup at Chicago. True, last year the Bears were also 2-0, and by beating the Packers they took control of the division, kept it almost all year, and ended up as the NFC North Champ for 2010, sending the Packers on the road in the playoffs. This year, if the Packers can beat the Bears at Chicago, they would put the Bears two games plus a tie-breaker behind them. That would be a nice result.

(There is another little problem down the road for the Packers - the Lions are also 2-0, looking every bit as good as we expected they might be this year. But since the Packers don't play them until Thanksgiving, there will be plenty of time to talk about the Lions later.)

As for the Bears, I admit that they surprised me in Week 1 by beating the Falcons, and beating them solidly. Sure, you can say that the Falcons have a problem on defense, as the Packers illustrated in the playoffs last year. And you can certainly criticize the Falcons for trading as many draft picks as they did for wide receiver Julio Jones, rather than addressing their defensive problems. But it is quite another thing for them to be picked apart by Jay Cutler, who may very well deserve more credit than I usually give him. Speaking of Cutler, as I was driving around late last night, I heard an ESPN Radio guy make the observation that the Bears need to do something about their offensive line, “or they are going to get Jay Cutler killed back there.” He added, “maybe that is the plan.” I paid just enough attention to the Bears game Sunday to realize that, despite getting sacked repeatedly, Cutler and the Bears’ offense made enough good plays to keep it close into the third quarter, but this time the Saints pulled away.

Against the Panthers, the Packers’ offense looked good, after getting into a 13-0 hole in the first few possessions. A fumbled kickoff return by rookie Randall Cobb contributed to the problem, but even without that the Panthers had a TD drive and another field goal drive to create the 13-0 lead. Rodgers was pretty close to flawless in parts of the second half, the running game was reasonably productive, and I really like the change-up in running styles created by playing both Ryan Grant and James Starks. Jennings, Nelson, and Finley did most of the damage in the passing game (which presumably means James Jones will continue to be irritated at the paucity of passes in his direction). Driver only caught one pass, but it was the pass that gave him the record in pass receiving yardage as a Packer, surpassing James Lofton. (He wrote a very gracious letter of thanks to the Packer fans, as noted here.) He may be nearing the end of the road, but he continues to be a contributor. For the second week in a row, he was the “hands” team guy to go up high and grab the onside kick in the closing minutes of the game.

The Packers’ defense is beginning to look like it could be a problem. Mike Neal missed the game on the defensive line, and is likely to miss a “significant” number of weeks with his injury. The Packers made what seemed at the time to be a good decision by also making Tramon Williams inactive, giving him an extra week to heal up. After all, they were playing a rookie QB, what could possibly go wrong?

When it became apparent that last week’s game was not a fluke, and that Cam Newton is the real deal, the absence of Williams became more problematic. And when Nick Collins was taken off the field strapped to a plank after a scary looking injury, things got even more troublesome. We just learned this afternoon that Collins is out for the season, which is terrible news, but I am thankful that he was well enough to return to Green Bay and attend the team meeting to tell his teammates the bad news.

So here we go - Packers and Bears in Week 3, just like last year, with injuries becoming problems for the Packers, and with a lot on the line.  Déjà vu.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Great Opening Night Win

So we decided to take a little journey to the land of the opening night hoopla.  I have been to opening day games before, and there is always a special, "back to football at last!" sort of flavor to the first game, or even to the first home game.  But I have never been to an opening night Thursday game, much less to a special, Thursday night opening game with everyone watching, and with a concert outside the stadium, colored cards for visual stunts taped to the seats, etc. Plus, the last two Super Bowl Champions facing off, Rodgers vs. Brees, the Packers' long list of receivers vs. the Saints' long list of receivers, fireworks being shot off, the whole nine yards.  You could certainly say that the game had a playoff feel to it.

Last week I wondered if the Packers would remember lessons learned from last year and stay aggressive.  Early returns suggest that they remember very well.  They started the game in a modified no-huddle type of offense, which worked so well during the pre-season and at times last year, and drove right down the field for a touchdown on the first drive.  A fumble recovery led to another quick touchdown, before the pace of the game settled down a bit.  They were also aggressive enough on defense to put a lot of heat on Drew Brees.  You could perhaps criticize Mike McCarthy for going a little bit into his shell on the last couple of offensive possessions.  I suppose that if the game goes down to the very last play with the winner in doubt, maybe it is fair to say that McCarthy went conservative a little too early.

Except for those last couple of possessions, the Packers' offense looked great.  Do did the Saints' offense.  Stuck in traffic on the way up to Green Bay, I heard various predictions on the radio about how the offenses are always behind the defenses at this time of year, so the score would probably be something like 17-13.  Yeah, right.  These offenses were on fire, in a way that I thought was not a poor reflection on the defenses so much as it was a sign of excellence on the offensive side of the ball.

Speaking of which, stuck in traffic again on the way back from Green Bay, we heard some Bears fan call in to NFL Satellite Radio, licking his chops about how bad the Packers' and Saints' defenses are, and predicting a 3-0 record for the Bears after facing the Falcons, Saints and Packers.  Talk about whistling past the graveyard!  I think 1-2 or 0-3 are far more likely.  We shall see, but despite the fact that the Bears won the division last year, played the Packers very tough, almost knocked them out of the playoffs, and almost beat them with their third-string quarterback, I am just not sold on the Bears.

Of course, there were some bad things in the game, like the old special teams problem rearing its ugly head, and some unnecessary penalties.  There was a scary-looking injury to Tramon Williams, but it appears that it is not as serious as it looked.  On the whole, what a great way to start the season for the Packers.  And for the NFL and NBC, I don't know how they could have asked for a better game.  On the offensive side of the ball, the Packers got a lift from the return of Jermichael Finley, and the combination of Ryan Grant and James Starks looks like it should be productive.  And then there was Randall Cobb.  A rookie, backup receiver and kick returner, scores his first two touchdowns on a huge stage, ties an all-time kickoff return record, and becomes the first NFL player born in the 1990's!

The Packers' defense, despite giving up 34 points, came up with two huge stops to save the game - first on a 4th and inches play late in the third quarter.  The Packers must have smelled a pass, because they came after Brees, chased him backwards about 20 yards, before he finally got rid of the ball on a short pass that had no chance of resulting in a first down.  Then, after an interference call on A.J. Hawk on what should have been the last play of the game, the Saints got one final chance, with zero seconds left, to get the ball in the end zone from the 1 yard line.  Maybe because of the 4th and inches failure earlier, Sean Payton decided to switch things up and try a dive by Mark Ingram over the center of the line.  But the Packers, this time, smelled the run (one of the defensive linemen said something about seeing the Saints' offensive linemen clenching their fists, and they knew it would be a running play).  So the defensive linemen went low, to avoid being pushed backwards, and four linebackers and defensive backs went high to stuff Darren Sproles Mark Ingram for no gain.  Final score: Packers 42, Saints 34.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Thoughts on Packers-Saints Opener

Having watched the Packers' preseason games this year, I have mixed feelings leading up to Thursday night's opening game.  On the one hand, the Packers' starters looked pretty good in all four games, especially on offense when they were in the no-huddle.  On the other hand, the Packers ended up behind in all 4 games, lost one, and had to have the second and third-stringers stage rallies to win the other three.  So what does that tell us?  Probably very little.  While I think Mike McCarthy was trying to win every game, his primary focus had to be on player evaluation (given the limited preseason evaluation time available), and on keeping his starters healthy which, for the most part, he did.

It seemed to many of us that Mike McCarthy evolved as a coach last season, culminating in him putting together a six-game win streak to become World Champions.  I felt that McCarthy and Dom Capers got to a point where they had enough confidence in their starters (even their starters after all of the injuries), that they felt comfortable enough to have all options on the table (onside kicks, aggressive blitzing packages, aggressive offensive play-calling including the no-huddle offense).  That evolution was a long time in coming and, in fairness, would not have been a good move earlier in the Aaron Rodgers era when McCarthy didn't have as much confidence in his offense, and when Capers knew that his defense was not quite ready.

Now the question is: will the coaches remember those lessons learned, and continue with the aggressive approach they used at the end of the season?  Or will they start out playing their cards close to the vest, hoping to come out of their shells later?

I thought back to an interesting Packers.com article from February, in which the author, Mike Spofford, describes a conversation McCarthy had with Aaron Rodgers before the Super Bowl.  McCarthy told Rodgers that he (McCarthy) would be the aggressive one with the play calling, but Rodgers would have to be the disciplined one with the decisions.  Not to pick old scabs off old wounds, but can you imagine McCarthy, or Mike Sherman, putting the burden on Brett Favre to be the disciplined one?  Yeah, neither can I.

So the challenge for McCarthy is to continue that same approach Thursday night.  The Saints are a great football team, despite their shocking playoff loss to the Seahawks.  If McCarthy and the Packers come out playing tentatively, the result could be bad.  They need to come out aggressively and take the game right to the Saints.  With Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant back, and with the emergence of James Starks, it is hard to see how the Packers' offense can be contained, so long as Aaron Rodgers gets some time.  And even after the loss of Cullen Jenkins, there are still enough playmakers on defense to cause some problems.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Review of Pre-Season Opener

So, the Packers lost their pre-season opener Saturday night, 27-17, to the Cleveland Browns.  Of course, they lost to the Browns in the pre-season last year, too, and the season worked out pretty well anyway.

I did not see anything to get me too concerned.  Sure, it would be great if they looked in post-season form, but that is not too likely in a first pre-season game.  On offense, the starters (minus Jermichael Finley, who was held out with a minor injury) did not look sharp on their first drive, going 3 and out.  But they got it together on the next drive (the last drive for Rodgers), and moved crisply down the field, scoring in 7 plays, including nice looking passes to Donald Driver and to Greg Jennings for the touchdown.

Matt Flynn led the offense for the rest of the first half, and he looked like a very capable backup, who could lead the offense if necessary.  He put 10 points on the board, on a couple of scoring drives, and made no big mistakes.  Graham Harrell played quarterbacks with an all-backup team for the entire second half, and did not look nearly as good.  He completed 50% of his passes, but gave up the big play of the game, a blind-side sack and strip that was returned for a touchdown.  He had two other fumbles to add to this.  In fairness to him, there was a lot of rotation of offensive linemen in the game, but especially in the second half, presumably so that Coach McCarthy can test out different players at different OL positions.

The defense never showed any consistency at any time in the game.  Of course, they were playing without Charles Woodson (just resting) and Sam Shields (minor injury).  Plus, Dom Capers called a pretty plain-vanilla style defense, as you might expect at this point.  Still, the coaching staff can't be happy about letting Colt McCoy complete 90% of his passes and two scoring drives.

Among the new players, there was one real standout: rookie WR and KR Randall Cobb (the Packers' second pick in the draft this year).  He was the leading receiver for the Packers in this game (3 catches for 60 yards), and he looked really promising, especially as a kickoff returner.  He returned two kickoffs for a total of 58 yards, and in both cases he got an extra 5-8 yards after I expected him to go down.  The league has deliberately de-emphasized kickoffs this year, by moving the kickoffs back to the 35 yard line.  This will result in more touchbacks and fewer runbacks.  Which might be too bad, now that we have a promising kick returner.

The bottom line is that when you add Cobb to an already-excellent receiving corps, the Packers really have something special.  Plus, if Cobb is the main kick returner, we can keep Tramon Williams out of having to return kicks, which scared me every time he lined up back there.  I anxiously await the return of Jermichael Finley.  They can't keep all the WRs and TEs on the roster, but if they keep the good ones healthy, they will be in great shape.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Defense of the Title Starts This Week

I feel as if my normal off-season rhythm was thrown off completely this year by the lockout, and even though I don't normally post much during the off-season, this year I have hardly posted at all.  And here the pre-season opener against the Cleveland Browns is only three days away.  It is high time to get myself back into a football frame of mind.

But before turning to the pre-season, why not take a couple of minutes and watch the story of the making of the Packers' Super Bowl rings.  The rings are stunning, and I love the fact that Jostens traces the history back to the Super Bowl I rings, designed jointly by Jostens and Vincent Thomas Lombardi.  Anyway, enjoy, and know that a lot of these rings will be on display in the White House on Friday.  Fire up the metal detectors.


Turning to the pre-season, the big news of the week is that Clay Matthews played the second half of the season, and the entire post-season, with a broken leg.  OK, it was a stress fracture, but that is still a broken leg.  It was over 30 years ago that the Rams' Jack Youngblood played in Super Bowl XIV with a broken leg, and I gather that his broken leg was also a stress fracture.  But it still is a powerful thought, that these guys can play, and play well, with that kind of an injury.  Play well?  My goodness.  I still get the chills when I see the video of Kevin Greene telling Clay Matthews that "it is time" [to make a play], followed by Matthews forcing a fumble to preserve and lengthen the lead over the Steelers.  To me, that Kevin Greene/Clay Matthews combination is right up there with Babe Ruth's called home run shot in the 1932 World Series.

Obviously, the key to this or any other Packer season is protecting Aaron Rodgers.  Just today, Packers.com posted an article that pointed out something I had not thought of before.  The starting offensive line this year will consist of three left tackles, along with a center and a right guard.  Chad Clifton, Bryan Bulaga, and rookie Derek Sherrod are all left tackles by past experience.  Given that, for a right-handed quarterback, the left tackle is the most important member of the offensive line, having three of them in the starting lineup provides some promise that Rodgers' sack total should drop again this year.

Let the games begin.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

2011 Packers Schedule

Well, the 2011 Schedule for the World Champion Green Bay Packers is out.  Now, if there is only a full season for us to watch.  You can find a simple chart of the schedule at Jersey Al's Packer Blog, and a printable version, suitable for taping on the refrigerator, at Packers.com.  (Which is exactly what will happen with my copy as soon as I finish this blog post.)

I like the schedule, assuming the full schedule is played as listed.  If the lockout continues into the season, there is just no way to tell how the league will move things around once the season starts.  So, for example, the bye week happens almost in the middle of the season (in week 8), which seems like a great spot for bodies to heal.  But not if the first six games just get wiped out, leaving the Packers with a bye after one game.  Since there is no use speculating what might happen to the schedule, I am just going to evaluate it as it is.

The opening week Thursday night game, three days before any other teams play, features the New Orleans Saints at the Green Bay Packers.  The last two Super Bowl winners, and the last two Super Bowl MVPs.  Not a bad little game.  I actually thought they would have Bears at Packers, to give a re-match of the NFC Championship game, but they opted for Saints at Packers.  To football fans not specifically invested in the two teams, which is really the point of the opening Thursday night game, I think Saints at Packers is in fact the better choice.  If I were a fan of the Carolina Panthers, or the Oakland Raiders, it is possible that I might have gotten a little bored over the years hearing about the Bears and Packers, the black and blue division, blah, blah, blah.  But I would definitely tune in to check out Saints and Packers, Brees and Rodgers.  This matchup, in short, probably has more curb appeal than a matchup that includes Jay Cutler as one of the quarterbacks.

There are no three-game road trips on the schedule, always a good thing, because they never seem to turn out too well.  Three of the last four games are home games, and two of those games are against warm weather teams (Raiders) or dome teams (Lions).  The other December home game is against the Bears, in week 16.  That is a great placement for Bears and Packers, and it might just be an important game again, as it was in 2010.  There are a couple of other warm weather / dome teams on the home schedule in mid-November, a Monday night game against the Vikings, and a Sunday game against the Buccaneers.  So weather could be a factor from mid-November on.

Finally, as one would expect, the Packers get great exposure in prime time and other national games.  The Packers play four times in night games (Saints at Packers, September 8, Packers at Falcons, October 9, Vikings at Packers, November 14, and Bears at Packers, Christmas night).  They also play at Detroit on Thanksgiving, and five of their Sunday day games are in the late time slot (Packers at Bears, September 25, Broncos at Packers, October 2, Packers at Vikings, October 23, Packers at Chargers, November 6, and Packers at Giants, December 4).  Not that I would actually do this, but living here on the west coast, I could sleep late every Sunday next season and not miss many Packer games.

I am anxiously awaiting the new season!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Celebrating the World Champion Green Bay Packers

(Photo by Corey Wilson of the Green Bay Press-Gazette)





I have a few observations from watching hours of post-game coverage, some live, and some on tape.  I will have more to say on the game itself later, but just wanted to comment on a few things from the moments of celebration.

As soon as the game ended, the idea sprang to mind that this game was a microcosm of the season as a whole.  I thought it was an original thought, but then I saw Chris Berman and others use the same term.  Berman, being an Ivy Leaguer from Brown, is obviously a smart guy, so it is a good thought, even if not original.  But this game really did capture the whole season.  Excellent play for most of the game by Aaron Rodgers, lots of dropped catchable balls, big plays on defense (especially the interception for a touchdown by Nick Collins and the forced fumble by Clay Matthews), a lull in the middle of the game, and finally a game-winning stand by the defense.  If that does not replicate what happened this season, I don't know what does.  [Ed. Note: I meant to mention the injuries to critical players, yet another way in which this game mirrored the season as a whole.]

Turning over the ball to the Steelers, with two minutes left, reminded the football guys on TV of the Super Bowl between the Steelers and the Cardinals two years ago, where the Steelers got the ball with about 2 minutes left and went down the field to win the game.  But I could not get the image of the 2009 Packers - Steelers game out of my mind, where the Packers took a 6 point lead late in the fourth quarter, but the Steelers drove for the game-winning touchdown on the final play.  Not this time, though.  The Packers' defense would not let that happen.

And it still is true that the Packers never trailed in any game, all year long, including the playoffs, by more than seven points.  That is a remarkable accomplishment.

I saw Greg Jennings, on the post-game show, talk about how "our no. 1 receiver, Donald Driver, went out with an injury."  Now, everybody knows that Greg Jennings is the Packers' no. 1 receiver, and has been for several years.  But what a classy, deferential move for Greg Jennings to describe Donald Driver that way.

Donald Driver spoke about the fact that sometimes you get injured, that you hope it doesn't happen in a Super Bowl, but that he is fine with it.  He said that his teammates told him that they would win the game for him.

I saw Charles Woodson, asked about his reaction to breaking his collarbone, saying that he broke down and cried, more so than he had done since he was a little kid.  And yet I also heard that, during halftime, he spoke to the team and told them just to play their hearts out and win the game.  I assume that he tried to talk at greater length to the team, and just could not get the words out.

Desmond Bishop, referring to Woodson breaking down, described how powerful it was to him to see his idol, Charles Woodson, break down like that, and how it motivated him to go out and win the game for Woodson.

Speaking of Donald Driver and Charles Woodson, you could not miss them standing on the sidelines, cheering on their team.  I thought Jay Cutler was unfairly criticized for not coming back into the NFC Championship Game, but it is undeniable that he mostly sat on the bench or stood by himself, and appeared to be sulking or feeling sorry for himself on the sidelines.  Totally different deal with Driver and Woodson, and I would have expected nothing less of them.

I heard Charles Woodson tell an anecdote to show how loose the Packers were before the game.  He described how, on Saturday night, backup defensive end C.J. Wilson sat down and started playing the piano. He said that he had always heard that Greg Jennings can sing, but he had never actually heard him, until Jennings (who, I believe, also plays the guitar) joined in with Wilson and started singing for the team, on the night before the Super Bowl.

I saw one of the players (can't remember who said this) tell the interviewer that Mike McCarthy had the team members measured for Super Bowl rings Saturday night.  What a great way to bring home the immediacy of the task in front of them, and to emphasize that they expected to win the game.  That was something that Mike McCarthy said all week, along with the statement that "This is our time."

And I heard Aaron Rodgers talk about how the team is made up of high quality players, and high character players.  From everything we can see, as fans on the outside looking in, that is true, and I think the comments quoted above by various players tends to show it is true.

Finally, I heard the tail end of a radio interview with Dom Capers, who was asked about the loss of Woodson, and for a time, Sam Shields, and he said that the game plan went out the window.  But it was the Super Bowl, with an extended halftime, and as a result, the defense had time to make the numerous adjustments that were necessary to win the game.  It was certainly closer than we hoped, and every Packer fan had to be having heart palpitations during parts of the third and fourth quarters, but when it counted, the offense drove down the field to score more points (unfortunately, only a field goal), and then the defense rose up and forced a turnover on downs.

Let's relish this win, and look forward to the fact that the Packers are well positioned to have more shots at the Super Bowl in the coming years.